Chatham University

Women’s Leadership

Joanne Laipson invites success

Joanne Laipson

Alumna Trustee Joanne Laipson '82 admits that entrepreneurial environments stoke her creativity and truly get her "fired up." The energy she derives from those endeavors is what drew her to her current job with one of the nation's top stationery designers as well as to Chatham's Board of Trustees.

But her connection to Chatham began with something of an ultimatum from her parents.

"I was looking at the time for a small women's college well outside of my hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts," Joanne remembers. "My parents said that I couldn't move any further than Pennsylvania. Chatham was on my list because it was an attractive, small school with a liberal arts focus and on the western edge of Pennsylvania, so that sealed it for me."

While at Chatham Joanne studied sociology and anthropology but confesses that she didn't have a career goal in mind. When she graduated in 1982, the US economy was in the midst of a deep recession and so she returned home to Worcester and found a job as a data analyst for a Boston-based human resources compensation consulting firm. She later worked as senior director of human resources at IBM/Lotus Development. During that time she received a call from a headhunter asking if she would interview for a job with Sony Pictures Entertainment in Los Angeles.

"The job sounded interesting but I had never been to LA and was hesitant to make a cross-country move. To be honest, the only reason I really went out for the interview was because I had never seen a movie studio.

"When I finally met with them they explained that they were looking around the country to bring in a human resources "dream team" to restructure the entire working experience at Sony." That, she says, drew her in so she made the move to California.

Although she spent a good deal of time at Sony and built out an employee service center of which she's very proud, the working environment was not as entrepreneurial as she had hoped. "What I didn't understand was that politics rule at the studio and it proved to be very frustrating for someone who wanted to make changes."

While still at Sony she was helping her first cousin with Checkerboard Ltd, his small stationery company. "He managed to hit the right formula and the company was growing fast so he was calling almost every night with questions," she says. "One Monday morning not long after 9/11 I realized I was having more fun with this little company than with my corporate job." However, she didn't want to move back to Massachusetts, where Checkerboard was headquartered. She eventually agreed to come aboard as vice president but work from Los Angeles where she lives with her partner Elizabeth Osder, a graduate of Mt. Holyoke College.

Since that time Checkerboard Ltd. has grown to become one of the nation's top three designers, manufacturers and wholesalers of fine custom invitation and announcement products, while has blossomed into a leading direct-to-consumer "etailer" of fine personalized stationery products. Recognition for Checkerboard and eInvite has included placement on Inc. Magazine's 5000 list of fastest growing private companies in America in 2008 and 2009, Better Business Bureau's Marketplace Ethics Award in 2006 and an eight-time winner of the Louie Awards (the greeting card industry's equivalent of the Academy Awards). Joanne says that they are equally proud of their eInvite partnerships including, the online stationery store for their partner, Costco Wholesale Clubs; and, eInvite@Caesars Palace Wedding Chapels and, the nation's leading online stationery store for the gay and lesbian community. Their Checkerboard partnerships include over 3,000 retailers across the globe including such national firms as Neiman Marcus, Party City, and Papyrus. The company has had a close and special relationship since its founding with Marjie Allon Fine Stationery in Shadyside, only a few blocks from the Chatham campus.

For her career accomplishments, Joanne was awarded the 2007 Alumni Cornerstone Award for Entrepreneurship. Shortly thereafter, she joined the Board of Trustees and has consistently been impressed with what she has learned from working with Chatham. " The University’s vision is light-years beyond where it was when I was a student, and I am amazed at how much is accomplished by the faculty and administration. I think Chatham is poised to take a real leadership position nationally in sustainability and the environment especially with our connection to Rachel Carson. It's also great that this focus on sustainability is mirrored throughout the city of Pittsburgh, which is one of my favorite cities.

"I find that every time I come away from a board meeting I learn something new," she says. "I feel that I'm getting a whole lot more than I'm giving."


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